Love London Love Culture’s Emma Clarendon chatted to Ella Marchment about the #OperaHarmony project she has created.

(C)Nick Rutter

Could you explain to me a little bit more about what #OperaHarmony is about? #OperaHarmony is about giving people an outlet for their creativity during the coronavirus lockdown period. Artists worldwide are working together across a range of disciplines to create, stage, perform, and record completely new 5–10 minute operas, and we are all learning how to collaborate online and how to embrace a wide spectrum of technologies and ideas. It is about having a distraction from the virus, challenging ourselves to find new ways to be creative, and building a community of people who might never have met in the course of their normal working lives, let alone had the chance to create an opera together. The
coronavirus situation really is terrible in so many ways, but we are trying to do something that is positive right now and will hopefully have a long-term legacy in the future. Even in the darkest of times, we can all do our bit to shine a light of hope, irrespective of how small the light initially is.

How did the idea for the project come about? I came up with the idea after a show that I was directing at Dutch National Opera was
suddenly cancelled. In the middle of a rehearsal, we were told that the theatre had to close and that we should all go home immediately. When I arrived back at my rented apartment in Haarlem, I suddenly found myself feeling cut off and isolated, not only from my livelihood and
my family, but also from my peers. The silence of the situation was deafening. It was in that silence that a single idea came to me: there must be others staring into the same abyss,looking for a creative outlet and some light in the darkness.

I wrote a Facebook post to friends, asking if any of them would be interested in either creating or performing short new operas during the lockdown period, and I was blown away by the response. I have every respect for those who want to use this time for self-reflection, but it was clear that there are a lot of artists who also want to carry on creating and
performing in some way. I think, perhaps, it is a small act of defiance: a way of us collectively saying to the virus that even in the face of tragic losses, we will – through art, love, goodwill, and a large dollop of determination – eventually triumph. I’ve run companies throughout my career, and commissioning is a particular area of expertise for me. I know that the composing and staging of new works gives opportunities to the widest
possible range of opera-makers. So I made a Facebook page, and two weeks later, #OperaHarmony now has seventeen teams working together worldwide. It is so inspirational to talk to the different groups and to hear how their ideas are developing. I’m really looking forward to helping those ideas come to fruition and filling at least part of the internet with new
art, made in extraordinary circumstances.

So how will #OperaHarmony work?  Anyone who is interested in being part of #OperaHarmony just has to email OperaHarmony2020@gmail.com . We already have singers, directors, music coaches, instrumentalists, designers, composers, and librettists. As every opera starts with a composer
and librettist, the initial focus has been on pairing up suitable people to work together to write the new operas. As a digital venture, time and location really aren’t important: a composer in Greece can easily work with a librettist in America, even if they hadn’t heard of each other
until they met through #OperaHarmony.

We are now starting to match directors with the writing teams, and the next stage will be to allocate singers and designers to each group. As a director, much of my job in the rehearsal room relies on me accurately assessing personalities and abilities so that I can get the best possible performances out of the artists I work with. The same process applies here. I pair people who I think will be a good, dynamic, and interesting match. They then get to learn about each other and to share ideas, and if they are happy to proceed, they start to work on a concept related to one of two broad topics: “distance” or “community”. Some librettists have already finished their first drafts, and one group has completed the writing of their piece, so I
imagine we will start to see some results from #OperaHarmony very soon.
The final challenge will be a technical one, with musicians and singers each recording their contributions individually and then tying all the different performances into a single cohesive work for showcasing online.

What would you like to achieve with this project? #OperaHarmony is not about a single outcome. It is about the value of processes. About making new connections. About collaborating with new people. About new writing and performance methods. About working beyond normal boundaries. About exploration and innovation and the sheer joy of saying “this is us, this is what we are, this is what we do, and we cannot be stopped”. We also want to offer brilliant new mini-operas, created for the first time entirely remotely. I have no fixed expectation of what this will look like in the end, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing the outcome of this matchmaking, and I hope that there will be a creative legacy that will last long after we have done whatever is necessary to see off the virus completely.

What kind of response have you had to #OperaHarmony so far? 
I’ve been overwhelmed. I did this as a way to have a bit of fun and to help some of my contacts to connect with each other, but it has become so much larger than I expected. I have also been shocked by the world-renowned artists who have come forward to voluntarily participate in #OperaHarmony. Even flabbergasted at times. Although I jokingly say that I
have created a monster – my eighteen-hour days are now filled with #OperaHarmony emails, messages, and online meetings – I am also thrilled to know that there is still so much creative spirit in the artistic community, and glad to have been able to facilitate an outlet for some of it.

Is there a time limit as to when people can get involved or will it be an ongoing project?  For now, no, but I might have to impose a limit in the future. I think the maximum number of teams I can oversee at one time is twenty, and there are already seventeen teams busily working away at the moment. It might become a wave-like process: when some of the current
teams have released their operas, I will then press on to create new teams. When the virus stops, I hope that many of the people will continue to work together, and it would be wonderful – in the years ahead – to see a full-length opera grow from of one of the seeds sewn by #OperaHarmony.

How can people get involved?  Email me at OperaHarmony2020@gmail.com with some examples of your work, and let me know what discipline you would like to contribute to. Some people have expressed in working across disciplines, so if you’re a singer or designer who has always wanted to write a libretto, #OperaHarmony might be able to give you the chance to try something new …perhaps #OperaHarmony will even launch some people into new careers.

By Emma Clarendon